Phish and its fans are getting older (this is 30th anniversary year), and indoor shows in New England, where they’ve made countless memorable appearances over the years, seem to expose the soft, nostalgic underbellies of even the most jaded Northeast types.
Last night was no different. The band last played the XL Center (then the Hartford Civic Center) on Dec. 12, 1999, and Sunday felt like a homecoming; both guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon attended concerts at the Civic Center more than three decades ago (including one on Oct. 14, 1983, Anastasio’s first Grateful Dead show, captured on Dick’s Picks Vol. 6). For many people, last night capped a day of seeing old friends and meeting new ones. People with Twitter handles introduced themselves to other people with Twitter handles, finally connecting faces with “@” signs. Before the show, folks strolled the usually quiet streets surrounding the venue, talking about music and culture, weddings and engagements, food, breweries, philosophy and art.
There were other reasons to feel vulnerable yesterday; the sad news of Lou Reed’s passing reached fans earlier on Sunday, which quickly grew into anticipation of how Phish would pay tribute to one of their musical heroes. (Guitarist Trey Anastasio released a statement, which you can read here). The XL Center appearance would also be a Sunday night gig after two explosive shows in Worcester, Mass., and that carried with it other, more subtle shades of expectation. (One friend who’s been to every show so far on the current fall tour asked which song I thought we’d hear last night, and I suggested “Tweezer.” “Right,” he said. “Church.”)
The band opened with a muscular version of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” a song in regular rotation (usually reserved for the opening of the second set) that preceded what ultimately became a rock-centered first set: a loping “Ocelet,” fast and energetic “Tube” and keyboardist Page McConnell’s piano-driven “Halfway to the Moon,” a trio of originals, followed, then “Fee” (with Anastasio on megaphone-shouted vocals and a dreamy outro jam) and a blistering “Maze,” building up layer upon layer of tension and release. A lounge-act “Lawn Boy,” with McConnell and Gordon strolling around the stage, followed, then the Gordon-led bluegrass number “Nellie Kane” and the odd phrase lengths, Caribbean swagger and sing-along choruses of Anastasio’s “NICU.” “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” and the multi-part “Walls of the Cave,” two newer originals (and by “newer,” I mean circa 2002-4), closed the set.
“Chalk Dust Torture” opened the second. Then, church bells (the Phish equivalent, anyway): the opening riff of “Tweezer,” met by audible gasps from the crowd. Hartford’s had its share of memorable “Tweezers” over the years (see Nov. 26, 1997), and recent tour versions (the previous Sunday in Hampton, Va., for example, and before that, the now-famous 36-minute Tahoe Tweezer on July 31, 2013) set the bar pretty high. Sunday’s “Tweezer” uplifting, an 18-minute major-key jam that cycled through several improvisational episodes (as these things do); improvisational rock fans got exactly what they came for, while newer, song-centric fans probably got a little disoriented.
“Bird of a Feather” and “Golden Age,” a TV On the Radio cover, followed (the latter, like “Tweezer,” extended into new, exploratory territory). “Halley’s Comet,” “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (after Eumir Deodato’s 1972 proto-disco version), “Fluffhead” (one of the band’s oldest and most complicated original compositions) and “Slave to the Traffic Light” (another older, multi-part composition, ending with long, building climax) ended the set. The band returned for a Rolling Stones cover, “Loving Cup,” and a heart-stopping “Tweezer Reprise,” the expected conclusion to a “Tweezer” show.
Tour-heads seemed happy with what they heard; more casual, drop-in listeners seemed satisfied with most of what they heard. The crowd spilled out into Hartford after hugging out their goodbyes inside the venue, and there was a palpable sense of accomplishment on the streets, one that suggested we’d all — the band and its fans — won.
RIP, Lou Reed.